Late defensive lapses call Lions' decision-making into question
Allen Park — Twice in the past three weeks, the Lions held the lead with under a minute to go before end-of-game defensive play calls burned them.
It happened on the second-to-last play against the Baltimore Ravens. And it happened again last weekend against the Minnesota Vikings.
In both of those late-game situations, defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn opted to rush three defenders instead of four, which led to the opponent completing critical passes to set up crushing, last-second field goals.
“The first thing I do is I look at who we have. And then the next thing I look at is who the team has, and you make your decisions from there,” Glenn said Thursday. “We’re really young in the back end and the more you expose them to pressures and things like that, the more issues that can happen. So, you try to do the best that you can to try not to put those guys in situations to where you can expose them, and that’s always been my philosophy.
“Each week is different. There are some weeks where I’m like, ‘Man, listen, there is somebody that’s got to have the hard hat and you have to wear that hat this week.’ And this week, I feel like that was the best decision to make. Just like any other week, any other decision I make in the game, I feel like those are the best decisions to make and we go with them.”
Against the Ravens, the Lions rushed four defenders on the first three plays of Baltimore’s final drive and got pressure on quarterback Lamar Jackson each time. On first down, they recorded a 3-yard sack. On second down, they forced an incompletion over the middle while delivering a hit on Jackson. Then on third down, the pocket collapsed and Jackson was forced to scramble before he was dropped for a 6-yard loss.
Despite that success, Glenn dialed up a call that rushed only three defenders on the ensuing fourth-and-19, which gave Jackson plenty of time to find Sammy Watkins for a 36-yard gain and put the Ravens in range for Justin Tucker’s historic 66-yard field goal.
Glenn said, at the time, he would’ve made the same call again given the odds of converting that fourth down were in Detroit's favor, while coach Dan Campbell cited the breakdown was more on a lack of communication between the team’s defenders than it was on the defensive scheme.
Against the Vikings, the Lions once again rushed four on the first couple plays but weren’t able to get to quarterback Kirk Cousins. He completed back-to-back passes, including a 21-yarder over the middle to Adam Thielen, to advance the Vikings near midfield.
With the ball at the Minnesota 45-yard line and 22 seconds remaining, Glenn made the call to rush three and drop another defender into coverage. The result? A 19-yard completion to Thielen over the middle that set the stage for Greg Joseph’s walk-off, 54-yard field goal.
"When you look at that situation (against the Vikings) in itself, I thought we did a really good job initially because we made them use their timeouts, which is the first thing we want to make sure they do,” Glenn said. “Secondly if you're going to catch the ball, you catch it in front of us and don't let anything behind us. Those are learning experiences for all of us and for some of the younger players that we have.
“I will say this, even those situations I want to make sure I continue to put those guys and coach those guys to be better in those situations, too. It's not only about execution. It's also about making sure we coach and prepare those guys to operate correctly.”
Campbell also noted this week the Lions were trying to provide more help on Justin Jefferson, but Minnesota was "throwing out bait" on their final drive by running an underneath receiver. On the first chunk play to Thielen, rookie AJ Parker bit on it and Cousins threw it right behind him.
"It’s one of those things that we’ve got to learn from because if we just sync on that play and make them dump it down, Jerry (Jacobs) is going to make the play for a 10-yard gain, they’re going to use a timeout, and they’ve really gained nothing significant to get it into field goal range," Campbell said.
Granted, the Lions’ secondary isn’t at full strength. Starting cornerback Jeff Okudah and his replacement, Ifeatu Melifonwu, are both injured, leaving the team to lean on young pieces like rookies Jacobs and Parker and second-year pro Bobby Price to fill the void.
But even if Detroit had a more experienced secondary, Glenn couldn’t say for sure whether his decisions to rush three would’ve changed because “every situation is different.”
“It can be, ‘Who do we have in the game as far as us creating those pressures?’ Because with those three guys, you’re looking at, ‘Who are those three guys?’” Glenn said. “They’re in there for a reason because there are other situations that happened because if the clock was running, then you might have a different play to where you want those guys to do something totally different. Each week I just try to think about, ‘Who do we have? Who do they have and what calls I can make to put those guys in the best situation?”
And it’s something Glenn will keep thinking about as the Lions try to devise an end-of-game strategy that will finally pay off and get a win-sealing stop.
“It’s just annoying,” rookie defensive end Levi Onwuzurike said of the last-second losses. “That’s all I’ll say, it’s real annoying. We gotta get it done this week.”
Bengals at Lions
► Kickoff: 1 p.m. Sunday, Ford Field, Detroit
► TV/radio: Fox/97.1
► Records: Bengals 3-2; Lions 0-5
► Line: Bengals by 3.5